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I Just Didn’t Know What to Do with This at First…

I Just Didn’t Know What to Do with This at First…

It seemed important but innocuous at first…buried in a Weather Channel alert about quarantining nearly 200 U.S. citizens returning to America from the central China province hosting an outbreak of the deadly novel coronavirus.  These Americans will be quarantined for 14 days under a federal order issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. (the first time for such a quarantine in 50 years.)

Dr. Nancy Messionnier, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said, “While we understand this action may seem drastic, our goal today, tomorrow, and always continues to be the safety of the American public. We would rather be remembered for overreacting than underreacting.”

And perhaps that’s good news from a government that failed to act quickly when the AIDS virus swept the country in the 1980’s, killing 13,000 citizens each year in an epidemic of unprecedented proportions until effective anti-viral medications were developed.

But I read further and was stopped cold in my tracks.

The bulletin said “Travelers arriving from China on commercial flights will be funneled through seven major airports; they will be screened for the virus.”

Okay. Strict precautionary measures.  Then…

“Officials also announced that foreign nationals believed to be at risk of transmitting the virus would be barred from entering the U.S. starting Sunday. [February 2, 2020]

People who live and work in the U.S. believed to be at risk – not screened but barred.  A radical change in our immigration policies by executive fiat?

I do teach practices for recovering resilience, and I do teach that the resilience mindset will allow us to cope with anything, anything at all, including being quarantined for 14 days because of reasonable fears of a deadly virus.

But I noticed myself not coping very well with the notion of barring of foreign nationals based on the belief that they might be at risk of carrying the virus. [This happened 15 years after the beginning of the AIDS crisis, too, with laws enacted by Congress.]

But perhaps the steady overturning of laws, week after week, by executive order by our current administration, I just went numb in disbelief and despair.

It took me a couple of days to come to the awareness that indeed I had dropped into the dysregulated state of my nervous system known as the dorsal dive, the over-reaction of the parasympathetic to feeling in danger but paralyzed, helpless to do anything about it. 

I will be writing about what we can do when we suddenly experience that sense of helplessness and despair (hint: move into connection and from there move into action).  Here I’m presenting the descriptions of three states of our nervous system from Deb Dana, trauma specialist and author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation, because it’s just so clarifying and helpful in its clear view.

When we’re clear and functioning well (ventral vagal state):

“In this state, we see the big picture and connect to the world and the people in it. I am connected to my experiences and can reach out to others. We take in the faces of friends, and we can tune into conversations and tune out distracting noises.  We are free to share, to stay, to leave. I might describe myself as happy, active, interested, and the world as safe, fun, and peaceful. “

When we get revved up in fear or anger:

“In this state, our heart rate speeds up, and our breath is short and shallow. We scan our environment looking for danger; we are “on the move.”  I might describe myself as anxious or angry and feel the rush of adrenaline that makes it hard for me to be still.  I am listening for sounds of danger and don’t hear the sounds of friendly voices.  The world may feel dangerous, chaotic, and unfriendly.”

If the action we take isn’t effective in resolving the danger:

“I am alone with my despair and escape into not knowing, not feeling, almost a sense of not being.  I might describe myself as hopeless, abandoned, foggy, too tired to think or act and see the worlds as empty, dead, and dark.  I am lost, nothing will help, and no one will ever find me.”

Deb and I will both be teaching how to regulate the nervous system back into the ventral vagal state of conscious, compassionate connection at the 2020 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. in March. In the meantime, I’m using my tools to do that regulation, come back into that state of clarity, connection, and action so I can offer something useful in future posts.

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